Brain Development & Youth Sports: Insights from Jelle Jolles

Jelle Jolles discussing brain development in youth sports.

There’s a growing interest in the intersection of cognition and sports, especially within scholarly literature. The magazine “Football Coach” recently interviewed Jelle Jolles, a Professor of Brain, Behavior & Education at Vrije Universiteit. This article provides a summary of the first two segments of the insightful discussion.

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Ellis and Brain Development

In 2011, Jolles released the second edition of his book ‘Ellis and Braining,’ focused on youth talent development. He delves deep into the science of brain functions and their real-world implications. Jolles believes personal growth is paramount. He emphasizes that parents, coaches, and educators should foster environments that promote optimal child development.

The character “Ellis” in Jolles’ title alludes to the famed “Alice in Wonderland.” The story revolves around Alice’s curiosity, wonderment, talent blossoming, dialogue, and communication. Such curiosity is essential for children’s talent development. Hence, trainers/coaches should ensure a holistic approach, encompassing physical development and communication, not just sports skills.

Mature Brains, Mature Athletes?

Part two underscores the long-held misconception that brains mature by age twelve. Recent studies suggest that brain maturation extends well into the twenties. While systems for basic motor skills are established early, complex brain systems develop during mid-to-late adolescence. For instance, 10-14-year-olds exhibit less planning and decision-making prowess compared to adults. Advanced regions responsible for visual-spatial perception and the processing of complex verbal tasks mature later.

Jolles highlights the case of a prodigious 16-year-old footballer who, despite appearing and playing like an 18-year-old, still exhibits teenage tendencies in self-assessment, decision-making, and social field behavior. Coaches should support such players, refining their complex behaviors to shape holistic athletes. It’s also pivotal to understand that youths might rebel, sometimes persisting until their twenties. Coaches should avoid prohibitions and instead instill an understanding of actions’ consequences.

Reflecting on my early coaching days, I realize I could have approached certain aspects differently. My initial team was U-13, and I occasionally used terms apt for young adults. It’s vital to discern what to expect from players. Stay tuned for the next article detailing parts 3 & 4.

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